“In the midst
  of death, we
  are in life.”

from the Burial Service
Book of Common Prayer

Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow

The purpose of this symposium is to explore how the grand reversal at the heart of the Christian Gospel, with its proclamation of life, and life in abundance, but life coming through death, is reflected in various disciplines in ways that might speak to contemporary issues. The “hypothesis" of this symposium is that by his death, Christ has conquered death, and so life and death are inverted; that by dying, as a human, Christ shows us what it is to be God, offering us a way of participating in the life of God, and, in fact, becoming human. Every other aspect of creation is “spoken” into existence (“Let there be, it was, it was good”), but God’s particular project, “Let us make a human being,” is only completed at the end, witnessed by Pilate (“behold the human being”) and declared by Christ (“it is finished”). The genesis of a human being requires one who as a creature can say “Let it be!”, first Christ himself, then (seen in him) his mother, and subsequently all those who follow him. Approaching his martyrdom, Ignatius reflects: “the pangs of birth are upon me … when I shall have attained to the light, then I will become a human being.” Irenaeus’ words, “the glory of God is a living human being,” again speaks of the martyrs. Death alone is common to all men and women throughout all time and space: thrown into this world without choice, our existence culminates inevitably in death. Yet, by showing us what it is to be God in the way in which he dies as a human being, Christ presents an alternative “use” of death: we now can actively “use” death, as a voluntary birth, completing God’s project of creating living human beings by giving our own fiat, establishing our existence in the free sacrificial life that is the life of God himself. Begun in baptism, in a symbolic “dying” to this world, the new life culminates in physical death, when the creature finally becomes clay in God’s hands as a living human being.

Such a bold "hypothesis" requires testing on various levels:

Theologically: How has this insight been articulated (or overlooked) in the history of theological reflection and in contemporary approaches?

Philosophically: Does the attention given in contemporary phenomenology (of the "theological turn") to themes such as birth/death, life, flesh, icon, and gift add further insight, so opening up a constructive dialogue?

Culturally: If Christ shows us the face of God in the way he dies (voluntarily for others), then is there a connection between the "denial of death" (the fact that we no longer "see" death because rather than allowing our departed ones to remain at home, mourned and celebrated by family, friends, and neighbors, the cadaver is instead taken to the mortician to be made up to look alive under the pink lights of the funeral home) and modern "secularism"? Is there a correlation between the denial of the sanctity of the ends of life (birth and death) and a hedonistic approach to life?

Anthropologically: Is “becoming human” through “dying to oneself” a more satisfactory account of the often-made distinction between person and individual? Would it provide the basis for an account of human distinctiveness, both with regard to the human origins and the possibility of a “post-human” future (real or theoretical, with genetic prosthetics, outsourcing of minds, etc.)?

Biologically and astrophysically: Is the relation between life and death on the human level reflected in, and also informed by, similar phenomenon on the micro-level (e.g. cell death) or macro-level (e.g. the death of stars)?

Medically: How does such a hypothesis contribute to what is fast becoming the greatest medical (but also financial and legal) problem in the western world: that the medical arts have become focused on the creation and extension of biological life, no longer knowing the art of helping the dying to die and those around them to accept this passage? Does there need to be a constructive dialogue between theology and the hospice movement/palliative care?

The conversation focused on these questions draws participants from three continents. Under the aegis of the John Templeton Foundation, it is taking place in Castel Gandolfo, a town in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Castel Vecchio is at the edge of the town and at the edge is Villa Barberini, the papal summer residence, which has on its grounds the Vatican Observatory.